Radio Atlantic: Understanding the Whistle-Blower

A former CIA analyst, Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan changed her mind on impeachment after Trump’s Ukraine phone call, leading her party to follow her lead.

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Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan says the decision she made to back an impeachment inquiry reminds her of when she worked at the Pentagon toward the end of Barack Obama’s administration, urging that American troops be sent into Iraq to contain ISIS.

“If I came home to Michigan and talked about it with my family and my friends, they would say, ‘I’m just exhausted by that. Why do we have to do that?’” she told me. “And it’s because of the risk to us and the risk to our allies if we did nothing.”

At that point, Slotkin was an undersecretary of defense, part of a career that has included stints on the National Security Council in both the George W. Bush and Obama White Houses, and, before that, as a CIA analyst assigned to Iraq. That background, Slotkin said, made her confident that the Donald Trump whistle-blower was in the CIA as soon as she read the complaint: “The writing style is exactly how we’re trained.”

Slotkin is one of seven freshman House Democrats, all from districts flipped from the GOP last year and all with a national-security or military background, who published a joint op-ed in The Washington Post last week widely seen as the tipping point for impeachment proceedings.

The op-ed, Slotkin said, was prompted by Rudy Giuliani’s meltdown in an interview with Chris Cuomo two weeks ago over Trump’s Ukraine phone call, leading to a running text chain among the seven Democrats as they learned more details about the president’s actions. That turned into a Google doc to draft the op-ed, and eventually a conference call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in which they filled her in on what they were up to. “All of us being CIA or former military, we practice the doctrine of no surprises. You do not surprise your commander,” she said. (Our interview can be heard in full on the latest episode of the Radio Atlantic podcast.)

The troops comparison isn’t exact, she said, but it was the first thing that came to mind when she came out for impeachment, a position she resisted for months, and one that presaged a tide of calls for impeachment in her party. “There’s so many things, when you’re in national security, that you do that aren’t perfect,” she said, “but you do them because you think you’re doing what the country needs to be safe.”

Why did the Ukraine call change her mind when Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report didn’t? Slotkin’s argument is that the difference is that this newest development is “prospective,” dealing with the 2020 election and not the 2016 election. She said she could “feel the oath of office kick in,” in which presidents vow to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” Her thought process was, she said, “What’s to say a Democratic president in four years or five years starts to reach out to China and ask for a little dirt there, or North Korea, or anywhere? And I just sort of feel the bones of the democracy being eaten away at.”

Given that Trump made the call to Ukraine the day after Mueller’s testimony to Congress in July, there’s an argument that Trump might have felt enabled by Democrats deciding not to officially call for impeachment. Slotkin said that while she doesn’t think about it that way, she’s been revisiting the call in context.

“For a lot of people, you read into these documents what you want to see in them sometimes. And I think the president seems to have read the Mueller report, or the summary, or whatever he consumed of that, and thought, Well look, they don’t have anything on me. They didn’t have enough,” she said. “And even though many of his cohort are now serving time or in the middle of litigation, the lesson that he clearly took away is that ‘I dodged a bullet, and now maybe I’m bulletproof.’ And the timing was definitely pretty amazing once I learned about it. He said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and no one would care, and he clearly is acting that way when it comes to our national security.”

Since publishing the op-ed, Slotkin has been throwing herself into convincing her constituents that she’s right. With Congress in recess this week, she’s been holding town halls in her district. (When we spoke yesterday evening, she’d just come from one that had been shut down by the fire marshal because of overcrowding.)

She told me that there are mothers at school drop-off who’ve stopped talking with one another over impeachment, neighbors mad at neighbors because they’re on different sides of what’s going on in Washington. Whether her constituents get on board could be a good barometer of how Americans are responding to impeachment, especially in a key state both Trump and the Democrats are desperate to win next year.

“It’s so tense,” she said. “We can’t stand that here in Michigan.”